Whitefish Theatre Co. reflects on 40 years of community theater

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  • The cast of “Steel Magnolias” presented by Whitefish Theatre Co. in 1992. From left to right are, seated, Robin Zeal, Keirsten Giles, Alicia Blake and Gail Cleveland; standing are Rachel McCormick and Carrie Knotts.

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    Angie Green and Mikey Winn perform during Whitefish Theatre Co.’s recent production of “Urinetown.”

  • The cast of “Steel Magnolias” presented by Whitefish Theatre Co. in 1992. From left to right are, seated, Robin Zeal, Keirsten Giles, Alicia Blake and Gail Cleveland; standing are Rachel McCormick and Carrie Knotts.

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    Angie Green and Mikey Winn perform during Whitefish Theatre Co.’s recent production of “Urinetown.”

Carolyn Pitman had been in Whitefish about a year in 1978 when she heard about a meeting arranged by a few locals to explore the idea of a community theater.

“I was looking for my tribe,” she recalled.

Nancy Nei was at that first meeting, too, bouncing her kids on her lap.

The consensus was unanimous: “Let’s try to put on a play.” That grassroots drumroll is how Whitefish Theatre Co. was born.

Four decades later, WTC is celebrating the 40-year mark with a special anniversary party and an expansive line-up for the 2018-19 season.

Several of the community-theater program’s founders fondly remember the company’s humble beginnings.

The group raised $1,000 to put on its first show, “Don’t Drink the Water,” in March 1979.

“Everyone loved it, so we formed a board and a nonprofit organization,” said Pitman, who became Whitefish Theatre Co.’s first executive director. She served in that capacity until retiring five years ago.

The second production was a musical called “Robber Bridegroom,” presented that fall.

“Nancy [Nei] was our director; she was our artistic salvation,” Pitman said. “The rest of us were enthusiastic. I just loved theater, so I started doing the mundane work, the paperwork, paying the bills, that was my niche and I got to be surrounded by lots of interesting people.”

Nei was teaching theater and other electives at Whitefish High School when she was pulled into the group. She had studied theater in college, and had come to Whitefish to work in Glacier Park in the early 1960s when she got involved for a time with another local theater program, the Mountain Playhouse at Big Mountain Ski Resort.

Nei directed Whitefish Theatre Co.’s first play and remembers one of the actors was stricken with stage fright.

“He played a somewhat minor character,” she recalled. “He was a very funny person, but he got stage fright, forgot his lines and ran off. The prompter gave him his lines and pushed him back out on stage.”

Nei learned quickly to expect the unexpected with the all-volunteer troupe. When the company performed “The Diary of Anne Frank,” the woman portraying Anne Frank’s mother, who was from Florida, had to abruptly leave when a hurricane ripped the roof off her home.

“I had to go in [as Mrs. Frank],” Nei reminisced. “I quickly learned the lines as soon as I could.”

She interspersed her directing with acting, recalling her most memorable role in “Wit,” when she had to shave her head to portray a cancer victim.

Most of the productions over the first two decades were held at the old Central School auditorium, where there was no special lighting and “the stage was pretty decrepit,” Nei said. Other time plays were put on at downtown bars or Mountain Mall, where lights and stage sets were brought in.

Norma MacKenzie, a current WTC board member who also served on the board in the late 1980s and early ’90s, remembers the camaraderie of the group that still is a big part of the theater program.

“I just started volunteering, even though I was raising a family and teaching full time,” MacKenzie said. “It was one of those things that got me away from everything else.

“I’m amazed to think how the productions would come together,” MacKenzie said. “WTC has really evolved into the kind of nonprofit that offers such quality productions.”

She pointed to the black curtain performances, done with no props and actors who read their lines from scripts, as an example of the performance variety. Those plays typically address topics such as domestic violence and myriad social issues. “Those deal with very uncomfortable situations in people’s lives,” she noted.

Vicki Bernstein, a founding board member, said she was never interested in acting but rather in “seeing the seedling organization flourish.

“We started humbly by meeting in each other’s living rooms discussing collective goals and how to reach them. ...I worked behind the scenes with play selection, auditions, rehearsals, procuring props, selling tickets and marketing.”

Whitefish Theatre Co. found a permanent home in 1998 when the O’Shaughnessy Center opened in Whitefish. The company worked out a rental agreement with the city of Whitefish, which owns the building. Having its own space allowed the company to bring in more outside groups such as the Missoula Children’s Theater and add a variety of performances.

“To offer the variety and quality, we’re very fortunate,” MacKenzie said.

Pitman said one of the big reasons why WTC has grown and flourished over the years is the commitment of the volunteers as well as the staff.

“We have tons of volunteers,” she said. “People find a home there and they love it.”

Pitman pointed to longtime WTC enthusiast Gail Cleveland, who acted in the second show and “got the bug.” Cleveland has done a lot of the grantwriting and publicity.

“She’s still helping,” Pitman said, noting Cleveland was headed to a booking conference in Las Vegas.

Bernstein said she’s grateful for the community ties and 40-year friendships that have evolved from her involvement with WTC.

“I am grateful to see our dreams have become reality,” she added.

Features Editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 758-4421 or lhintze@dailyinterlake.com.

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